How Do You Impersonate Judy Garland? Ask a Drag Queen

Half a century after Judy Garland died and 80 years after “The Wizard of Oz” made her famous, she remains the rare golden-age performer whose popularity and mythology reach beyond Las Vegas and the Turner Classic Movies channel.

Last year, Lady Gaga’s performance in “A Star Is Born” alerted many younger viewers to Garland’s in the 1954 version. This fall, Renée Zellweger played her in the film “Judy” — and now the satirical Off Broadway revue “Forbidden Broadway” features a scene in which Garland complains about Zellweger’s imitation. She was prominently featured in the recent “Camp: Notes on Fashion” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Through it all, Garland’s decades-long imprint on the gay communal psyche — particularly when it comes to drag — has remained surprisingly strong.

“Every time I listen to her Carnegie Hall album, I imagine that every little scream you hear in the background, every applause is our queer ancestors cheering for her,” said the “RuPaul’s Drag Race” winner Sasha Velour, 32. “We’re always trying to seek out some connection to those generations of queer people in the past because there are many ways in which we have lost those threads.”

In her inventive, surprisingly openhearted lip-synced show “Smoke & Mirrors,” which is now touring the U.S., Velour places the Garland classic “Come Rain or Come Shine” on a pop-cultural continuum that also includes Annie Lennox’s “Precious” and Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon.”

“I don’t produce the voice because I cannot out-sing Judy Garland,” said Velour, who doesn’t do an impersonation so much as Expressionist performance-art illustration, complete with a cotton candy-like teal wig, “but I can give it a different interpretation with my face, my body, my storytelling.”

Velour’s 21st-century take on drag performance does not mean old-fashioned realness is gone — it’s still on full display in “Judy: Behind the Rainbow,” a biographical one-man production performed by Peter Mac in full Garland regalia at the Producers Club in Hell’s Kitchen.

Just as Velour finds a direct link with previous generations of Garland admirers, Mac — a self-described “tribute artist” — looks up to a long tradition of impersonators such as Charles Pierce (who called himself a male actress), Jim Bailey and Craig Russell. You could say that in a way, Judy drag predated cosplay.

“The great Jim Bailey had set the bar and proved you could do a classy act,” said Mac, 41. “I saw a couple of other people who were not so classy. They liked to make fun of Judy and play up the pills. That felt wrong. I cannot stress this enough: Imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery, not battery.”

His show tracks Garland’s career through anecdotes and songs, with Mac duplicating the singer’s physical and vocal mannerisms to often eerie effect.

“She had this tremendous vibrato, that wonderful way of not pronouncing her consonants — she made a career out of not pronouncing them,” he said.

Mac has been doing Judy Garland for 17 years now, though his talent for imitation goes back much further.

“They found out when I was a little boy that I had a knack for voices,” he said. “I was about 5 years old, and my idol was Dustin Hoffman in ‘Tootsie.’”

Most of Mac’s banter is made up of actual Garland zingers, but he can also react to the audience in character on the spot. “You have to marinate in it,” he said of how he prepares. “You don’t want to do it, you want to be it. It’s got to become a part of your DNA.”

Garland is not the only human gay landmark in Mac’s repertoire, which also includes Karen Walker of “Will & Grace,” Katharine Hepburn, Liza Minnelli and Tallulah Bankhead. He and his husband, John Mac, also star in “Golden Girls Live: A Loving Parody” — the pair met at a “Wizard of Oz” brunch in Chelsea.

Yet Garland remains his Pole Star. A week after “Judy: Behind the Rainbow” concludes, on Nov. 23, Mac starts performing his version of her Christmas show; his stockpile also includes “Judy and the Songs That Got Away,” an evening of songs she didn’t record, performed the way she might have done.

Even after all these years, the thrill of being Judy has not faded. “It’s like a great workout or having great sex, all of these endorphins go through your body,” Mac said in an email. “It really is like having an orgasm. I could light up a cigarette after I’m done singing ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ … and I don’t even smoke!”

Velour echoes this sense of elation talking about her approach to the Garland myth.

“As much as her sadness and her sorrow are part of the legacy, she also gave people so much joy, and I don’t necessarily want to always focus on the darkness with her, like a lot of drag queens like to do,” Velour said, laughing. “There is such a happiness and love of life in the recording of ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ that I perform — I love getting to connect with that Judy and the queers who loved her every single night.”

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